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Latin America's Anti-Corruption Leaders: "Corruption Always Fights Back"

Sérgio Moro, Claudio X. González and José Ugaz discuss the future of Latin America's historic crackdown on graft in this exclusive interview.
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Sérgio Moro, Brian Winter, José Ugaz and Claudio X. González
Americas Society/Council of the Americas

The following conversation took place on March 1, 2018, and appears in the upcoming issue of AQ, on newsstands later this month.

A historic crackdown has led to great strides against corruption in much of Latin America. But there is work left for the region to consolidate progress and take the next step forward. AQ Editor-in-Chief Brian Winter spoke with three celebrated corruption fighters to get a sense of what comes next.

Sérgio Moro is the federal judge overseeing the Car Wash corruption investigations in Brazil; José Ugaz is the former chair of Transparency International who, as an attorney, played a key role in corruption investigations into former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori; and Claudio X. González is the president and co-founder of Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad, a civil society organization in Mexico leading the push for transparency and accountability in government.

The transcript of this interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Brian Winter: It has been four years since a raid on a gas station in Brasília signaled the beginning of the Car Wash investigation. Since then dozens of people have been jailed – not just in Brazil but elsewhere in the region. But lately there has been a backlash by some governments, and parts of society, against the anti-corruption movement. How would you describe the current situation?

José Ugaz: Well, it’s a fact that corruption always fights back, and we’ve seen this historically in many other places.

Sérgio Moro: I think it’s too soon to say what the end of the story will be. Institutions are stronger, and we will never give up. In spite of these signs of a backlash, we haven’t seen anything concrete that obstructs our work.

Winter: In Mexico, there is a perception that this anti-corruption process is just getting started. Do you share that opinion, Claudio?

Claudio X. González: Yes. People are really fed up — with what has gone on for decades, and especially for the last five or six years. And we have started demanding change more forcefully. As José said, if you combat corruption, corruption is going to try to combat you. In this initial stage we’ve seen the government go after groups that are combating corruption and impunity with espionage, they are going after us with fiscal terrorism — but we cannot give up.

Winter: These efforts that you describe — have they, in a perverse way, been successful so far?

González: No, we’ve gone forward, I would say with even more speed after these things have happened. The fact they have been highlighted in international press gives us a little bit more of a defense.

Ugaz: There are some reasons to be optimistic. First, thanks to the good work of judges like Sérgio and the task force led by Deltan Dallagnol and former Attorney General (Rodrigo) Janot. Now many of our countries are having these new, young judges and prosecutors.

Secondly, we’ve seen something that is quite new in the country, which is people’s engagement. Millions of people in Brazil, thousands in Guatemala and Honduras, marches in the Dominican Republic for the first time ever — Peru too.

And the third thing has to do with the private sector. We have a new generation of entrepreneurs willing to change things and trying to develop business with integrity. That is something quite new in the region too.

Winter: I want to talk about the role of public opinion. I get the sense in Brazil right now, but also in Peru and elsewhere, that people are getting a little bit bored, frustrated, confused with the anti-corruption movement. There are perceptions also of selective justice. Judge Moro, do you sense that people still support Car Wash?

Moro: I think there is frustration about the omissions of our government in general, because since the beginning the fight against corruption has been a result of the work of prosecutors, police and judges. And I think a lot of Brazilians — myself included — expected that the government would take steps to approve general policies to reduce incentives and opportunities for corruption. So, I think people are a little bit frustrated because of this lack of effort. And I’m not sure, but we have a general election this year and maybe all this frustration will have an effect in the polls.

Winter: José, what do you see at a regional level?

Ugaz: All the feelings you just explained are there. But I would say again that people are much more aware (of corruption) than 10 years ago.

González: I think we’re also gaining momentum in Mexico. A little bit more freedom of the press, although that’s still a problem in our country. Independent outlets like Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción y  la Impunidad are doing investigative reporting on corruption. And I think the internet has been very important — Twitter, Facebook — because these are so much more difficult to control. That’s where people vent their frustration regarding corruption.

In this election year in Mexico, corruption and security are the two most important issues. And I agree with José: Little by little we’re starting to produce results. There are the governors of Veracruz, Quintana Roo, Tamaulipas, and Sonora who have been jailed. This is something unique for Mexico.

Winter: When I travel to Mexico, people always tell me: What we really want is a corruption probe like Car Wash here. And I always say: Are you sure? Do you know what that implies, that it can be very disruptive to politics and the economy? And they always say yes.

Then I say: Well, the good news is that it’s possible. The bad news is that in Brazil it took 26 years between the Constitution of 1988, which established independent prosecutors, and the appearance of the Lava Jato probe.

Moro: I think the precondition is independence. You need independent prosecutors, some level of independence for the police. The police should not be just a branch of the government. You also need a strong demand from civil society and from the general public against corruption because these politicians are very powerful.

But let me say one thing: I think it’s important to break this rule of impunity. If you do, over time you will have less corruption. Of course, you cannot dream that this will put an end to corruption. You have corruption in the United States…

Winter: God knows!

Moro: … but it seems to an outside observer that you don’t have such high levels of impunity. What we need in Latin America is to build stronger institutions so in the future we will not need something like Car Wash.

Winter: Final question: Those preconditions for success, how common are they in the region? How much further is there still to go?

González: I think one critical step that Mexico has to take is independence for prosecutors, because prosecuting in Mexico is completely politicized. Unfortunately our attorney general’s office is under the mandate of the executive branch, and they pretty much only go for those who the regime thinks are their enemies. And they will always protect their cronies.

That’s a shameful state of affairs. We’re trying to change it. We know it’s going to be a long haul — an intergenerational long haul.

Ugaz: I think there’s still a good path ahead of us. Corruption in the region is historical, it’s systemic and it’s structural. So we need to change structures.

We cannot have the illusion to think that the situation of corruption in Latin America is going to be changed by the judiciary. The judges have to do their work and the prosecutors, too. But the real change, the change of structures, of cultures, of systems, has to be done on the other side. It has to do with policies, with leadership, with political will from the government, with the people reacting with the private sector, taking action on the way they invest and how do they do business. 

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.


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